Is Code a Foreign Language?

As states begin incorporating coding classes into school curriculum, some are suggesting that programming languages like Java and Python may be the new Spanish. Are they right?

03.25.16 5:00 AM ET

As lawmakers in several states begin adding coding courses to the curriculum—in some cases as an alternative to Spanish or French—a complicated question is emerging: Will the next generation of Americans learn code instead of another language?

One of the states leading the charge is Florida, where senators last month “overwhelmingly” approved a proposal that would allow high school students to take code in place of a foreign language. Considering that the state does not have a foreign language requirement for graduates, the endorsement is more a symbol of the changing views on code than anything—but an important one nonetheless.

As NPR points out, Florida is one of many states beginning to recognize the importance of code. Other states are integrating computer science in similar ways. In Alabama coding is a substitute for a math class. In Texas, students can use computer science as a sort of copout if they perform poorly in an actual foreign language.

Although coding classes may be good for students, they can place a heavy burden on school district budgets. The reason is simple: more coding classes means more computers. For some public schools, where budgets are incredibly small, that is a big concern.

In a 2013 survey from Pew, 56 percent of teachers in low-income schools deemed a lack of computer resources a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching (compared with just 21 percent of teachers with high-income students). Some counties in Florida, for example, have as few as one computer per five students available.

That ratio starts to hurt the lowest-income households, who can’t afford the tools that will help children learn. But even for those that can, what should they really be learning?

It’s not such a simple answer.

As the cotton ball, pipe cleaners, and glue crafts from elementary school prove, not everything we learn in school will translates into professional life. Spanish, by far the most studied foreign language in America, isn't necessary in every workplace. Neither are the 49 things in a Buzzfeed article on “useless things” we learned (like cursive and long division).

Coding, in the eyes of Florida lawmakers, could be the exception—something that’s beneficial in creating a well-rounded graduate and an adult with the skills to prosper in the modern world.

But is their assessment correct? Not exactly.

In this case, lawmakers might be confusing the world of coding for basic computer literacy. While understanding computers might be a necessity, some argue that coding is becoming an increasingly vocational skill—one you can reasonably choose whether or not to master.

So maybe it’s not a learn-or-perish topic of study. In that sense, it’s really no different than a foreign language: you may have forgotten much of what you learned the next time you need it, or you may have studied Spanish and need French. That’s usually about the time someone will decide to bring in a translator, or take a few classes to refresh or learn the basics.

Of course there’s another angle to this: that computers may have reduced the need for those foreign language skills severely. Google and many other tech companies have developed plenty of code to help you immediately translate spoken or printed words to your own language.

A recent piece from VentureBeat suggested that deep learning is going to vastly improve the accuracy of Google’s translate features, meaning that the need to learn another language may be replaced by the ability to copy and paste text from one window to another.

Maybe then the solution to this problem isn’t more language courses, but a renewed focus on typing skills.